July 8, 2004

30 million Americans have seen war-related images online that mainstream news organizations deemed too graphic or disturbing to display

Washington, D.C. (For release at 5 p.m. July 8)—New research by the Pew Internet Project shows that during some of the most turbulent weeks of the Iraq war nearly one quarter of Internet users (24%) went online to view some of most graphic war images that were deemed too gruesome or horrific for newspapers and television to display. Further, of those who have seen the images, 28% actively sought them out. Overall, however, Americans are conflicted about the idea of these disturbing images being available online. By a 49%-40% margin, Americans disapprove of the posting of such images. A strong cultural divide emerges between Internet users and non-users: Internet users approve of the images being online by a small margin of 47% – 44%, while non-users disapprove by an overwhelming 58% – 29% margin. These are some of the results of a nationwide phone survey done between May 14 and June 17 – a period just following massive world coverage of the murder and dismemberment of American contract workers in Iraq’s strife-torn town Fallujah, pictures taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, and the capture and beheading of U.S. civilian Nicholas Berg. The horrific nature of many of the war-related images that have appeared online have left Internet users with a range of feelings. “Millions of Internet users want to be able to view the graphic war images and they see the Internet as an alternative source of news and information from traditional media,” said Deborah Fallows, Senior Research Fellow at the Project, and co-author of the report. “But many who do venture outside the traditional and familiar standards of the mainstream news organizations to look at the images online end up feeling very uncomfortable.” Some 51% of those who have witnessed the images felt they had made a good decision in doing so. One third of those wished they hadn’t seen them. Another 7% held both views, and 8% more couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. Women seemed particularly troubled over the entire issue of graphic online images. Some of the evidence:

  • Only 29% of women approve of the images being available online, compared to 53% of men.
  • Half as many women as men have seen the images online and two-thirds as many women as men have gone in search of them.
  • 39% of women who saw the graphic images felt they had made a good decision to do so, compared to 68% of men, and 55% of women wished they hadn’t seen them, compared to 34% of men. In another demographic difference, 52% of the younger adult Internet users, those under 30 years old, approve of the extreme images being available online, compared to 44% of those ages 30 – 49 years and 31% of those over 50 years old. “However,” says Fallows, “while the younger Internet users may think they want to see these images, they have a hard time absorbing what they see.” Some 48% of the young Americans who had seen the images online wish they hadn’t, compared to 31% of the oldest Americans, those over 50. Partisan differences emerge as well. Some 42% of Republicans think that the war images should be available online, compared to 52% of Democrats and 53% of Independents. This Pew Internet & American Life Project report is based on data from telephone interviews conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates among a sample of 2,200 adults, 18 and older. For results based on the total sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the error attributable to sampling is plus or minus 2 percentage points.